Staying Olive in Spain

Felipe Nunez de Prado dons a royal air when it comes to olives and oil. He may even have olive oil coursing through his veins, coming as he does from a family of growers and mill owners spanning seven generations.


Allan Jacob

Published: Sat 16 Jan 2010, 9:26 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 10:25 AM

A gentle morning sun thaws the chill while he holds court in the middle of the sprawling 700-hectare Nunez de Prado olive estate, near Baena, in central Spain. Andalusia, where the large farm is located, accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s olive oil production. The stocky and stoic Felipe dons a jacket and appears like a bearded lord, his eyes shielded by sunglasses, yet missing no detail of the land and the activity on it. Looking around, you realise he’s the man in charge, the veritable master of all he surveys, with the undulating landscape making for a picturesque setting, perfect for a postcard.

But far from the looks of it, the orchard owner’s expressionless countenance conceals a deeper involvement in his occupation. He speaks in flowing Spanish, with a smattering of English to help the listener along. You catch a faint smile when the discussion centres on his family’s agricultural heritage and milling activity.

The cooking fuel that drives the Spaniards is a staple on every food table in restaurants and homes you visit. You can dip into the greasy nectar with anything palatable to tickle your taste buds, cook a delectable mix in it, or simply breathe in its refreshing fruity flavours (like I did) for some pure heaven on earth.

Mediterranean Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world, churning out almost 1.2 million tonnes annually, according to the Spanish Association for the Industry and International Trade of Olive Oil (ASOLIVA). This is well ahead of Italy with an estimated production of 300,000 tonnes, or Greece, which produces 280,000 tonnes. ASOLIVA expects production figures to rise to 1.3 million by the end of this year.

Spain exports 700,418 tonnes of olive oil annually, or 70 per cent of its production, which is worth 1,830,332,215 Euros in revenues, according to ASOLIVA.

These figures, however, don’t tell the whole story. My host skips lofty trade pronouncements, because numbers can sometimes numb the senses, making it hard to picture the process. But he tells me that the marketing of his family’s premium ‘extra virgin olive oil’ is left to elder brother Francisco, who is away in China to explore markets and lure new audiences to a traditional Spanish product. “I would love to do what I’m doing till I’m 100, cultivating, nurturing the crop and living off its produce,” he says with smile, the modest farmer in him coming to the fore.

The Nunez de Prado scion isn’t one to rest on inherited agricultural wealth and is keen to show you around his daily activity. So we hop on to his sixties vintage Land Rover and head to higher ground of the plantation for a better view of the harvest. There are over a hundred varieties of the crop used to extract oil and the most common have names like Picual, Verdala, Real, and Manzanilla de Jaén, Picuda, Lechín, Chorrío, Pajarero and Hojiblanc.

Felipe is a creature of habit in his extensive grove as he steps off the vehicle and waves to his workers. He then plucks some well-rounded olives of different hues, scrutinises them in his palm with a curious tilt of the head, then places them on the net at his feet with a satisfied grin. Nearby, workers use mechanical combs to shake the crop from the branches, which are then collected in nets laid on the ground.

The owner of the plantation tells me that the olives are not allowed to fall on the soil and must be pressed within two hours for the best quality extra virgin oil, which has an acidity level below 1 per cent. There is also the normal virgin olive oil of acidity upto 3.3 per cent and the stronger version with acidity levels above 3.3 per cent.

Besides these, you have lower end varieties like refined olive oil and regular olive oil — a mix of the virgin and refined varieties.

My hosts have been pioneers in the organic cultivation of the crop, a quiet agricultural revolution in this cosy corner of the country, which has largely gone unnoticed. “No fertilizers, no chemicals, just compost and adequate water,’’ says the Felipe with pride.

At the flower-lined mill, part of which has been converted into a museum, you see the early days of oil extraction with large conical, granite grinding stones. Storage was in wooden vats way back then.

The extraction process is vastly different today with machines taking over, and it takes between five and 10 kilos of olives to get one kilo of oil. The olives are ground whole to get mulch — a mix of pulp and water — which is spun to get what is known as ‘flor’ on the surface. It is then filtered to rid it of water and other impurities before it is packed in distinct, cuboid bottles and capped with a cork, just like in the good old days.

Everything about the Nunez de Prado produce has a traditional ring to it. Felipe tells me the attempt is to balance the modern and conservative approach to business. ‘‘This is a unique Spanish product and we’d like to keep it that way, in touch with our roots.’’

No visit here is complete without savouring some gastronomic delights from the Nunez de Prado kitchen, cooked in extra virgin olive oil, of course. For starters, there are almonds fried in olive oil, batter-fried vegetables, prawns dipped in home-made ‘olive oil mayonnaise ‘and salmon wrapped in olives.

Over to the main course with cod cooked to perfection. Fine wines from the region assist in the gastromic venture, and a tangy concoction quaintly named ‘olive oil ice-cream’ helps you wind down with no trace of guilt. This food is fit for a king, soft on the heart and light on the senses.

Staying Olive never felt this good. Move over Bee Gees.

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